PICT Staging of ‘Jane Eyre’ Fires the Imagination for a Victorian Classic

You should go see Jane Eyre at PICT Pittsburgh’s Classical Theater, running now through April 28, 2018 in Oakland. We were there for opening night.

Let me back up. I read the novel several times, along with others in the Bronte canon. I liked this novel, but I didn’t love it. I also didn’t love sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights, but I was conscious of the underlying power in these books. It was only as I grew into my own feminism that I began to truly appreciate the radical lives of these amazing women and their indelible impact on literature. Check out the BBC movie To Walk Invisible to learn more about the sister’s relationships and early writing efforts.

For the record, I also enjoy & appreciate Jane Austen and take no fixed side in what seems a needless attempt to pit the few women of this era who did succeed in getting their work published against one another.

My partner and escort for the evening, Laura, had not read the novel so she was approaching the entire show with fresh eyes.

PICT productions are currently at the WQED studios in Oakland. Parking is free and ample. The space is lovely and accessible. It was our first time to see a live production in this space and we were both very pleased. Also note that PICT staff had converted the bathrooms to gender neutral facilities which was a practical and classy touch.

The performance ran 2 hours and 20 minutes with a 15 minute break. It is a long stretch, but during the break they offer a little snack and you are allowed to bring water back into the theater. There were plenty of ushers to help us find our seats. The seats were literally brand new which was an unexpected pleasure.

The story was stripped down with a minimalist set design that kept the actors busy changing the props between scenes in a dizzying chorus that was occasionally integrated into the dialogue, as when sisters shared gossip while converting a table into a desk. The imposing heights of the venue lent themselves well to this Victorian era of lofty ceilings and drafty accommodations. Gorgeous lighting work took us from dusk to dawn and back again, from despairing struggles in the rainy cold north of England to the fiery nightscape of a house fire.

Jane Eyre is the story of a romance as well as a reflection on the roles of women in the era. Jane is orphaned at a tender age, cast upon the mercies of indifferent family who toss her into the pitiable charity schools run by the Church, and leave her to make her own way in the world. She perseveres in spite of the support offered by her Church and those assigned to curb her wicked ways. She winds up as a governess and faces a series of challenges to her principles.

In this production, Jane is portrayed at a young age, an adult, and as narrator to the entire show. Karen Baum as adult Jane was quite mesmerizing. Her husky voice reminded me of Katharine Hepburn. I appreciated how she enunciated without laying out a thick English accent. James FitzGerald was dastardly, selfish, and pompous in all of the useful ways the vicars and lawyers must be.

I admit that I have a growing fascination with the deft work of the ensemble actors who switch roles in the span of a few lines of dialogue with a quick costume change. Plus, they are switching props. That’s a unique degree of choreography that is quite impressive.

The younger actors were of interest to me as well (our niece is a first year student at CAPA.) I’m astonished by their CV’s and again their work juggling multiple characters, props, accents, costumes and during the school year. Particular note to Grace Vensel who played Adele Varens and perhaps studies with my niece at the Pittsburgh CLO Academy. She was enchanting in character, but I was also struck by her use of physical comedy and timing.

So what did we think? We both loved it! Laura didn’t feel the missing scenes from the novel. Laura was struck by how principled Jane was in spite of the unrelenting abuse she experienced in the name of religion. I was reminded that religion can be complicated in its goodness. Also, I was struck by the similarity to the Harry Potter origin story.

I was captivated, immersed in this production. It has been a long time since I read the novel so some things caught me off guard even though I knew the general outline. I was never a fan of Jane’s choice at the end of the novel, but I was a fan of her making a choice.

I’ll have to give Jane and the rest of the Bronte characters a rethink, but something new struck me – the character of Bertha Mason, portrayed by my Facebook friend Kaitlin Kerr (no relation.) I spoke to her briefly and she pointed me to the novel Wide Sargasso Sea written by Jean Rhys in 1966. It is a post-colonial prequel to Jane Eyre and I’m looking forward to reading it. I can’t say more without revealing key plot points.

And I’m a fan of you making a choice to see this production, but act fast because tickets are selling quickly. They start as low as $13 so it is an affordable production as well.

Support the arts and invest in the resistance.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary pair of tickets to attend this performance as part of the media list. I like to share that tidbit because while not a journalist, I take pains to prepare for and write up these reviews. They are my opinions, colored only by the input of Ledcat.